My Abiding Love Affair With India
I lately returned from a month in India. It was exhilarating, transformative, illuminating and stylish. It was exhausting, maddening, annoying and debilitating.
As is now one thing of a cliché, India is a land of contradictions and extremes.
This was my seventh go to of at the least three weeks since 2001, and the fourth time I’ve led a tour since 2016. These repeated visits are all a part of my attraction to India that started within the Nineteen Sixties on the films. As a university scholar discovering international cinema within the artwork homes of New York Metropolis, I considered with surprise and delight the revelatory movies of François Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini and others. Then, in a single memorable three-day span, my thoughts was blown (as we mentioned again then) by Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy.
The Magic of India
Each aspect of the trio of movies—the beautiful black-and-white pictures of village and metropolis life, the primary character’s arc from childhood to middle-age, the stress between custom and modernity—was gripping and intriguing. However it was the scenes in Benares (now Varanasi) that captivated me. I knew nothing in regards to the historical metropolis, and the Ganges was simply the identify of a river to me, not a sacred entity. However one thing about the way in which Ray depicted, framed, and revealed the town penetrated me deeply. I knew that sooner or later I needed to go there.
Nearly as enchanting as what I noticed on display screen was what I heard. The trilogy’s rating, delicate, unobtrusive, and completely enthralling, featured string and percussion devices I’d by no means heard earlier than. Phrases like sitar and tabla weren’t but in my vocabulary. However a short time later, when Ravi Shankar was befriended by George Harrison and emerged as an unlikely celebrity, the sitar grew to become a part of the Nineteen Sixties soundtrack. That’s after I realized that Maestro Shankar had composed the music for the three-part story of Apu’s life.
By then, India to me was greater than an unique vacationer vacation spot, and greater than a stunning supply of world-class artwork. It was the homeland of timeless knowledge that was reformulating how I noticed the world and reshaping the contours of my life.
I used to be younger and stressed, offended and scared. My discontent had led to a diligent seek for solutions to the Large Questions: Who am I? How can I discover peace and achievement? What’s my place within the universe? Standard knowledge appeared incorrect at each flip, and the usual American life-style appeared, to cite William Shakespeare, “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.” As I drifted to what was referred to as the counterculture, books got here my approach, and within the works of authors I admired—Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham, Herman Hesse, J.D. Salinger—I discovered admiration for India’s non secular heritage. That led me to Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and works by trendy swamis, yogis, and Buddhist masters. I took up meditation and supplementary practices, and I by no means regarded again; my life had modified irrevocably.
I’ve been grateful to India ever since for birthing the common knowledge of Vedanta and Yoga, and for one way or the other sustaining it via centuries of colonization.
The Discovery of India
I deliberate to go to India for the primary time in 1970, to be educated as a Transcendental Meditation trainer within the Rishikesh ashram made well-known by the Beatles. To my nice disappointment, this system was held in America as an alternative, and I spent three months within the Rockies, not the Himalayas. For the following thirty years, each time I hatched a plan to go to India, circumstances intervened; mainly, I both had the cash and never the time or the time and never the cash.
Lastly, in 2001, I used to be launched in the end to my non secular homeland. I spent a few week every in Delhi, Rishikesh, Varanasi, and, together with 30 million different pilgrims, the Kumbha Mela in Allahabad (now Prayagraj), plus a day or two in Khajuraho, Vrindavan, and Agra for an compulsory—and unexpectedly elegant—viewing of the Taj Mahal.
Since then, each journey again has been illuminating and transformative in its personal approach. And, after I return to the US, I’m invariably requested what I’d seen for the primary time and the way locations I’d been to earlier than have modified.
The primary query is less complicated to reply: each Indian location I go to for the primary time—from the temple cities and tropical backwaters of the south to the hill stations and ghats of the north, from colossal metropolises to distant villages—exhibits me stunningly new issues and in addition reassures me with comfy, acquainted issues.
The second query is extra nuanced, as a result of India is constant in its inconsistency and changeless in its fixed change. I at all times say, to start out with, that in some ways India hadn’t modified in any respect, and that’s very lucky. The insights of the rishis, the oral and written legacy of the sages, the timeless practices maintained in temples and ashrams—these valuable items India has given the world stay on in all their outstanding variety. The representatives of the varied lineages whom I meet proceed to uphold and transmit to others the precepts of the sacred texts and the psychospiritual methodologies they favor. And, within the spirit of seva and karma yoga, most proceed to direct service tasks that profit the Indian individuals.
On the identical time, India modifications, most visibly in its sorely-needed infrastructure upgrades: new roads have made lengthy rides extra bearable, and the brand new airports are superior to the ageing ones within the US. I often be taught of disturbing developments. It breaks my coronary heart to listen to about communal battle or acts of bigotry and violence directed at Muslims and different minorities within the identify of Hinduism. It appears antithetical to the innate pluralism that’s been central to the custom because the Rig Veda and is deeply admired by individuals like me the world over.
It’s additionally disturbing to listen to about anti-Hindu actions in Kashmir, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, or the coercive and misleading conversion techniques of Christian missionaries in Tamil Nadu and different areas. I’m pained by the reflexive anti-Hindu sentiments of varied Indians within the identify of modernization with the underlying assumption that historical non secular traditions are impediments to progress. That premise, I hasten to level out, has been disproven by the enormously profitable adaptation of dharmic teachings to the fashionable, scientific, rational, technologically superior societies of the West.
Change and Continuity in India
On a associated word, one development line has turn into extra troubling with each go to: the keen Westernization of India’s youth. It’s one factor to embrace applied sciences like computer systems and vehicles, or to change saris and kurtas for denims and T-shirts, nevertheless it’s fairly one other to go all in for frenzied consumerism and the alcohol/tender drink/junk meals/office-bound/commuter life-style that has wreaked havoc with the psychological and bodily well being of People. It was specific dispiriting, on my latest tour, to seek out Burger King and Domino’s Pizza retailers facet by facet in Rishikesh, of all locations, and to see Coca Cola commercials on the recently-installed big display screen above the Varanasi ghat the place night aarti is carried out.
Ah, however one factor that doesn’t change—and I think by no means will—is the gracious spirit of the Indian individuals. The excursions I co-lead are rooted within the theme of a ebook I printed in 2010, American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Modified the West. Our itineraries characteristic locations related to the outstanding gurus who got here to the West, in addition to encounters with numerous swamis, students, and different attention-grabbing individuals with one thing to show us. Alongside the way in which, we go to temples, ashrams, historic and architectural landmarks, and discover the Indian panorama. And but, after imbibing that arresting buffet of experiences, after diving deeply into India’s non secular treasures, after studying new practices and exploring new concepts, after seeing a surprising array of magnificent sights, the factor our vacationers discuss most is the individuals they encountered.
The kindness and generosity supplied to us by bizarre Indians, who’re, with uncommon exceptions, welcoming, curious, and useful, is at all times singled out in end-of-tour reflections. I at all times share with our vacationers, as a part of their orientation, the Indian maxim, Atithi Devo Bhava: the visitor is god. By the tip of the tour, they’ve seen firsthand simply how significantly the Indian individuals take that adage. They’re invariably deeply moved by the kindness and affability of bizarre Indians, a lived expertise that leaves an even bigger mark on their hearts than realized discourses and spectacular views.
I ought to add that, like most good issues, friendliness, courtesy, and generosity might be taken too far, offering guests with endearing tales to inform. My 2014 go to was an 18-city ebook tour for the Indian launch of American Veda. I used to be not solely a visitor that point round, however an honored one, and when Indians resolve you’re value honoring they pull out all of the stops. After per week of being overfed and over-entertained, I informed my spouse that I used to be going to die of Indian hospitality. I didn’t know say “No” to those that insisted on conserving me firm always, or to the fixed choices of meals (particularly the limitless plates of delectable sweets). I ended up asking the tour organizer to inform these internet hosting me in every vacation spot that I had diabetes. It was a lie, and I hated to lie, however the technique labored, and I gained solely twelve kilos as an alternative of fifty.
After all, my tour friends don’t should cope with such extremes of cordiality, solely the occasional teams who can’t take sufficient footage with their new American associates (particularly blonde ones—a rarity in India). What they bear in mind are the broad, gleaming smiles, the darkish, inquisitive eyes, and the honest gives of help, recommendation, and typically humble, heartwarming service. Greater than anything, it’s the heat of the Indian folks that make the warmth and dirt, the chaos and clamor, the diseases and near-catastrophes, appear to be minor inconveniences. And the vacationers have the photographs to show it.
As for me, despite the fact that I do know by now precisely what to anticipate, India at all times manages to take me unexpectedly. On the final tour—extra harrowing than the earlier ones as a result of a few of our group acquired Covid—I oscillated repeatedly between the magnificent and the insufferable, the elevating and the miserable, the joyful and the annoying. I returned to the US completely worn out however one way or the other exhilarated.
I by no means wish to go to India once more.
I can’t wait to get again to India.
The views expressed on this article are the creator’s personal and don’t essentially replicate Truthful Observer’s editorial coverage.